Chamber Music Northwest Concert Portland Oregon

Black Violin: busting musical stereotypes


“We’ve been stereotyped from the moment we picked up the instruments,”Black Violin violist Wil Baptiste Jr. told me in 2016. “Every time we step on stage, we shatter every stereotype, every perception — violin, classical music, black man, whatever.” Baptiste and his high school classmate and violinist Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester will be demolishing stereotypes again Friday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Sunday at Hult Center’s Silva Hall in Eugene with their barrier-busting combo of classical, hip hop and pop music.

Black Violin performs Friday in Eugene and Sunday in Portland.

After practicing viola in his Florida high school music classes two decades ago, Baptiste would “put my headphones on and listen to whatever record was happening at the time,” he recalled. “We started off with hip hop before we even picked up an instrument.” When he and Marcus reconnected after college, they started adding beats to classical tunes like concertos by Vivaldi and JS Bach, and also adding their strings to covers of hits by Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa and other pop stars. “We understand both worlds,” Baptiste said. “So we couldn’t help but to try to put them together; it was really natural to blend the two.”

In 2004, the duo brought their act to the toughest audience in America: Harlem’s renowned Apollo Theater. “Everyone else before us got booed, we got these violins, what’s gonna happen?” Baptiste wondered. “The crowd went crazy. That’s validation. That’s all we needed right there.” Alicia Keys’s manager happened to be there, and soon BV was performing with her, Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean, and more, opening for Aerosmith and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, even playing President Obama’s second inauguration. More Apollo appearances followed, along with TED Talks, SXSW, collaborations with symphony orchestras, national tours. 

Marcus and Baptiste conduct extensive outreach and education programs in schools where they tour, introducing kids not just to the possibility of playing violin but also pursuing their own passions, as ArtsWatch’s Maria Choban discovered when she wrote about BV’s 2017 kids concert:

Working with Title 1 Portland Public Schools, Portland’5 bused in elementary school students for a free noon concert with Black Violin. It was a ParTay the entire hour! Kids screaming, singing along while the showmen onstage turned their cheering knobs ever louder.

From the stage, violist Wil Baptiste exhorts me to “Put Your Hands Up and Wave Them Like THIS!” His partner, violinist Kev Marcus, nods appreciatively, in rhythm, continuing to plow through noodly passages perfectly in tune. Nat Stokes, Black Violin’s secret weapon on drums, builds a propulsive engaging and LOUD narrative under the flashy strings.

“Put your hands up!” The audience at Black Violin’s noon show.

Meanwhile, DJ SPS turned this whole weird juxtaposition between straightahead rock-tight drumming and manic baroque strings into glass, dropping in today’s beats and disembodied vocals. Add columns of colored lights and a fog machine and you’d have to be dead or a snob to not giggle along with the infectious enthusiasm.

This band has a knack for being motivational without being pollyanna. When Kev Marcus got to the heart of Black Violin’s mission, he followed “It’s about thinking outside the box and breaking stereotypes” with a passionate street jab: “I’d hear from my friends ‘Man, why you even playin’ that instrument? It’s not even cool!’ Well, We’re gonna make it cool!” The kids in the Schnitz roared their approval!

And just like with the evening crowd, students started bopping to the Brandenburg in the front orchestra sections. The students also spontaneously broke into song when Black Violin covered Wiz Khalifa’s “I Came a Long Way to See You Again“ and Ed Sheeran’s “We Found Love Right Where We Are.”

I asked several kids after the show what they thought. It was a unanimous ebullient thumbs up from all.

Portland5 and Chamber Music Northwest brought Black Violin to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

ArtsWatch’s Matthew Andrews covered BV’s Portland show last year.

It would be hard to pick a favorite “live” feature from this show: Wil strumming his viola like a uke and leading a sweet sing-along of “Invisible”; Kev taking solo after blistering solo on his badass electric violin, a giant grin radiating out from under his cap; the band’s customary totally improvised number, not just some simple jam (though there were jammy elements, here and throughout) but a full-on group-improvised song, complete with extended down-beat negotiation and impeccable on-the-spot decision-making from the whole group; DJ SPS’s ridiculous turntable skills and witty, PDQ Bach-esque solos; BRAVO Youth Orchestra coming up on stage for “Magic” and the Copland-inspired “Shaker,” starstruck-but-confident young violinist Luis Chan-Hernandez taking the solo with Kev and nailing it with a sly smile while attentively eyeing the older man’s more advanced bowing technique; Wil and Kev encouraging each other and their band and their fans and the kids on stage, pumping each other up, breaking stereotypes, showing “what a black man is capable of” and reminding us that “there’s always hope to fuel the fire.”

Black Violin performed at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

Now in their mid-30s, the pair still love classical music — and still live hip hop. They’re at work on a new album, a follow-up to 2015’s Stereotypes that presumably will include their new single, “Dreamer.” With their ear-friendly hooks and pop production, stage charisma (including drummer and DJ) and obvious joy in the music, including their own soulful originals as well as classical standards and pop hits, Black Violin draws big audiences of diverse listeners.

“The best way to describe the audience of our show is to go to a baseball game,” Baptiste said. “You see old, young, all ages, colors and creeds — that’s exactly what we see at Black Violin concerts.”

Black Violin performs Friday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Sunday at Eugene’s Silva Hall. Click the links for ticket information.

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.